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City council meetings disrupted by antisemitic group trying to gain a foothold in New England

During public comment in Framingham last week, a small group called in with antisemitic comments. It’s not the first time the group has reached into New England city meetings — and it’s not even the most recent example, following Tuesday calls in Worcester.
During public comment in Framingham last week, a small group called in with antisemitic comments. It’s not the first time the group has reached into New England city meetings — and it’s not even the most recent example, following Tuesday calls in Worcester.

Tuesday night, antisemitic and white nationalists from a small group known as the Goyim Defense League posed as a local journalist and as city residents to speak during a virtual Worcester City Council meeting. Their comments started off subtle, but once their message of hate became apparent, Mayor Joseph Petty cut them off.

It was the second time in recent weeks that the group called into a Worcester City Council meeting, spewing hate. That disruption was also cut short by a city official. The group has also targeted councilors with racist, antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ mailings.

And it hasn’t just been Worcester. Last week, members of the Framingham City Council were surprised with 12 minutes of virtual hate speeches at the start of a public meeting.

But, like a lot of hate groups, the Goyim Defense League uses the protections afforded by the First Amendment to attack Jews, Black people, LGBTQ and immigrant communities.

The neo-Nazi group, which first emerged in California, is seeking to attract attention across the United States by using hate speech as its calling card, according to experts from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Goyim Defense League is one of several hate groups that started up in the aftermath of the so-called “Unite the Right” far-right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

“These groups thrive on notoriety. They thrive on inspiring any kind of fear they can, and they thrive on attention. The more attention they're paid, the more they'll increase their activity in those areas,” said a Southern Poverty Law Center expert who asked not to be publicly identified because of ongoing threats of violence. “From their perspective, they don’t even see it as disruption. They see it as a form of patriotism.”

The Goyim Defense League, meant to be a parody on the Anti-Defamation League, is a network of individuals who run an online video platform called GoyimTV to promulgate anti-Jewish propaganda. The ADL cites five or six “prominent figures” in the group and supporters numbering in the dozens.

Their presence has been noted in Massachusetts as far back as last summer when residents of West Brookfield, some of them Jewish, woke up to find ziplocked bags on their steps filled with rice and anti-Jewish messages, including ones denying the Holocaust — an act police suspected was carried out by the group. Two years ago, the league brought national attention to itself by holding a banner over a Los Angeles highway that read, “Kanye is right about the Jews.” The reference was to a string of antisemitic comments made by Kanye West, also known as Ye.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office told GBH News that it is aware of the activities of the Goyim Defense League but that their activities are protected speech. Other local groups have been closely tracking their activities.

Rabbi Ron Fish, with the regional ADL New England, says he doesn’t like to use the group’s name to avoid giving them any more publicity.

“They’ve been spreading similar kinds of noxious lies, in various forums, all across the country, including in New England,” he said. “We share our information with law enforcement and with political leaders and with community leaders across all lines.”

Advocates like Fish would like to see more pushback. Fish says the recent council meeting in Framingham is a good example with how community members reacted as speakers unleashed a barrage of anti-Jewish rhetoric.

“There was discomfort in the room, and people can sometimes freeze when these events unfold — as they did in Framingham recently,” he said. “But we ask any individual when they hear hate to respond to it and to push back. And we would have liked to have seen the chair or others at the Framingham City Council to speak up. There are dangerous untruths, which can wreak violence on our community.”

In a video feed of the event, the chair of the Framingham City Council, Philip R. Ottaviani, instructed speakers — who called into the meeting via Zoom — to limit their comments to three minutes. One of the callers began by describing Jews as “parasites.” His remarks were met with boos and hisses from members of the audience who attempted to drown out the man’s comments with clapping and a gospel song.

But local officials’ hands are tied when it comes to countering hate speech in public forums such as city council meetings. Last year, in a unanimous decision, Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court ruled that government officials cannot silence members of the public during public comment periods.

Attorney Maggie Mulvihill, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University and a board member of the New England First Amendment Coalition, said that though speech by the Goyim Defense League and other neo-Nazis is troubling, “they have the right to speak.”

“People say horrible, hateful things, but they have a right to do that unless it falls in these narrow categories, like it's a true threat or it is inciting violence, like the Brandenburg decision,” Mulvihill said. “So, government agencies have to be very, very careful about restricting somebody’s speech.”

The Goyim group has disrupted dozens of public meetings around the country over the past year, according to the ADL, including in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Their actions come as the country is facing a surge in hate incidents. In 2022, ADL documented an unprecedented 3,697 recorded incidents of antisemitic assaults, harassment and vandalism, with Massachusetts ranking sixth highest in the number of such acts across the nation. There were 152 incidents fueled by hatred against Jewish people in 71 cities and towns across the state, according to the ADL.

The Goyim Defense League is trying to gain a foothold in New England alongside NSC-131, a violent neo-Nazi group, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. NSC-131 held a protest outside of Gov. Maura Healey’s home in Arlington last weekend.

Southern Poverty Law Center experts say they don’t see an official link between the two groups. “I don’t know if there’s any formal agreements made, but members of the Goyim Defense League have showed up at NSC-131 rallies,” the law center expert said.

The ADL warns that the group’s rhetoric serves as an opening to violent extremists intent on harming Jewish communities in Massachusetts and beyond. They cite the Tree of Life incident in 2018, when a gunman whose social media posts were steeped in antisemitic and racist dogma entered a synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people.

Fish acknowledges the constitutional limits in countering hate speech such as the comments presented recently at the Framingham City Council meeting. But he still says communities can show their disapproval.

“That doesn’t mean that they had to remain silent,” he said.

This story was originally published by GBH. It was shared as part of the New England News Collaborative.

Phillip Martin is a senior investigative reporter for the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting. Feedback? Questions? Story ideas? Reach out to Phillip at